Everything’s Going to Hell was a studio I taught at the Sam Fox School of Design, Washington University, St. Louis. There, we sought to understand the relationship between architect, city and disaster.
Twenty years ago, we worried about earthquakes in California, drought in Africa, and hurricanes in Florida. Today, we have a fifty year drought in California, a hurricane-type storm at the North Pole, and flooding in St. Louis. Human activity now not only accounts for stronger storms and increased climate change, but we have figured out a way to make landslides (China) and earthquakes (Oklahoma) as well. Human intervention in the built and natural environments is making the world more dangerous and you need to do something about it.
Disaster, like gravity, or acoustics, is increasingly understood as something every designer needs to consider with every design. Increasingly, no locale is immune. In just the last ten years, 2/3 of all counties in the U.S. have been declared federal disaster zones. Conventional models of humanitarian intervention have focused emotionally potent over-simplifications, leading to a proliferation of ‘poverty-porn’ and righteous indignation from all quarters. Everything Goes to Hell sought to dismantle such thinking, and instead asked students to consider disaster and resilience as omnipresent issues, linking rich and poor, foreign and domestic.
The studio operated on the premise that humanitarian design, under difficult, constrained resources, can often draw out design possibilities, rather than inhibit them. Put another way, disaster forces one to be creative. Conventional humanitarian architecture has often focused on emergency response, and thus creates predictable designs. Designers frequently challenge themselves and each other over who can design something the cheapest, the simplest, the easiest. Newer, more thoughtful discourse within humanitarian architecture circles acknowledges that this approach often exacerbates the underlying conditions that gave rise to the disaster in the first place. The challenge, therefore, is how to position design as a tool for development and the betterment of human life.
The studio focused on design challenges rooted in real situations. For some students, this will obviate the need for a static site and program, and will instead focus on the connective tissue between buildings, people, and climate and how that tissue can be manipulated to either enhance of reduce risks.
The studio also introduced students to the complexity and dynamicism of humanitarian work. While conventional architecture often pressures one to be declarative, humanitarian architecture requires both a stronger parti and a deeper willingness to engage in twists and turns. There are far fewer circumstances under one’s control and for that reason, humanitarian work provides opportunities for creative problem solving, as long as the parti is well understood, and there exists a commitment to great design, as opposed to just formulaic solutions.
Earlier this year I had the honor to teach at Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC) and Grenobles Alpes University, lecturing on disaster, resilience and why most 'resilience' is bullshit. My students were awesome.